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Commentary: Jawaharlal Nehru's Legacy

By Shashi Tharoor Email By Shashi Tharoor
July 2024
Commentary: Jawaharlal Nehru's Legacy

India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, won three consecutive terms. Like Narendra Modi. Nehru died on May 27, 1964. Sixty years later, during the nation’s 18th general elections, which were again hailed as the largest exercise of democratic franchise anywhere in the world, there was scarcely a mention of the man who did more than anyone to ensure that India attained and maintained the status of the world’s largest democracy.

When he died in 1964, Nehru’s legacy to the nation and the world seemed secure. A towering figure in national politics and on the international stage, the reflective, mercurial Nehru had—in innumerable books and speeches, but also in his conduct as a Prime Minister—developed and articulated a worldview that embodied the aspirations of his generation, of our country, and (many believed) of the developing post-colonial world as a whole. “We are all Nehruvians,” a senior Indian official told me more than a decade later, with conviction and pride, of his colleagues in the Indian ruling establishment.

Today, there are few Nehruvians visible in our politics, let alone in government. Indeed, Nehruvianism seems to have lost not just power, but allure. Nehru is criticized, even derided, by votaries of the prevailing version of Indian nationalism, one that claims to be more deeply rooted in the land (and therefore in its religious traditions and customary prejudices). His mistakes are magnified by those in power, his achievements belittled. The [current] Prime Minister regularly goes after Nehru, accusing him and his family of monopolizing India’s institutions and installing a dynasty. To the PM and the advocates of New India, Nehru embodies all that they see as wrong about the Old India.

And yet, even a PM who claims India is “the mother of democracy” forgets who husbanded that democracy in the tumultuous years after Independence. After the assassination of Gandhi in 1948 and the death of Sardar Patel in 1950, there was no one to compete with Nehru in stature. He was so unquestionably India’s tallest leader—so unchallengeably the personification of its very freedom—that all he needed to do, if anyone opposed him, was to threaten to resign. Nehru usually got his way. This was not the instinct of a power-hungry dictator: he preferred to resign than to impose his views.

Nehru was never tempted by the argument to which so many fellow heroes of the anti-colonial struggle in other developing countries succumbed—that dictatorship was the only way for them to forge unity and direct development. For he was a convinced democrat, a man so wary of the risks of autocracy that, at the crest of his rise in the late 1930s, he authored an anonymous article warning Indians of the dangers of giving dictatorial temptations to Jawaharlal Nehru.

As Prime Minister, Nehru carefully nurtured democratic institutions. He paid careful and deference to the country’s ceremonial Presidents, taking care to show them visible respect. He wrote regular letters to the Chief Ministers of India’s states, explaining his policies. He subjected himself to cross-examination in Parliament by a fractious opposition, giving them importance out of all proportion to their numbers. He encouraged his own party’s backbenchers to speak openly against his government’s policies in Parliament if they found anything to criticize. He took care not to interfere with the judiciary: on the one occasion where he publicly criticized a judge, he apologized the next day to the individual and to the Chief Justice of India for having crossed a line. Though he was, in the celebrated Indian metaphor, the immense banyan tree in whose shade no other plant could grow, he made sure that every possible flora flourished in the forest.

By his speeches, his exhortations, and above all by his own personal example, Jawaharlal imparted to the institutions and processes of democracy a dignity that placed it above challenge from would-be tyrants. He instituted a public audience at his home every morning where ordinary people could come to petition or talk with their Prime Minister. His speeches were an extended conversation with the people of India. If there was something tutelary about them, romanticizing his relationship with the people of India—the idol of the public dispensing democracy like so much prasad to the worshipping masses—that was a necessary phase in the process of educating a largely illiterate, overwhelmingly poor people in the rights and prerogatives that came with freedom.

Some critics, mostly with the benefit of hindsight, have suggested that Nehru was grooming his daughter to succeed him. There is no evidence whatsoever that such a thought crossed his mind. Of course, being his official hostess provided Indira Gandhi with a unique political education at close quarters, and she soon revealed a taste for affairs of state, both domestic and international. But Jawaharlal took no steps to promote her as a possible successor; he did not appoint her to his cabinet, despite public calls from partymen for him to do so, and she rates only as an also-ran in Welles Hangen’s famous speculative 1963 book, After Nehru Who? The worst that can be said is that Nehru did not object when others in the Congress Party pushed his daughter into politics, first as organizer of the party’s women’s wing in 1953 and most notably when they elected her President of the Congress Party nationally for 1959. She proved a fierce and partisan official, leading the Congress into the streets against the elected Communist Government in Kerala and pressuring the Government of India to dismiss the state authorities for failing to maintain law and order. But she did not seek (and Nehru did not encourage) re-election after her one-year term as party President.

Nehru, ever the democrat, confronted the issue of succession directly in a 1961 interview: “I am not trying to start a dynasty. I am not capable of ruling from the grave. How terrible it would be if I, after all I have said about the processes of democratic government, were to attempt to handpick a successor. The best I can do for India is to help our people as a whole to generate new leadership as it may be needed.”

As he once said to the American editor Normal Cousins: “My legacy to India? Hopefully, it is 400 million people capable of governing themselves.” The numbers have grown, but the principle speaks of his aspiration. In the peaceful transfer of power that followed his death—not to a handpicked successor but to the elected (and unrelated) Lal Bahadur Shastri—Jawaharlal Nehru left his most important legacy.

Amidst India’s myriad problems, it is democracy that has given Indians of every imaginable caste, creed, culture, and cause the chance to break free of their lot. There is social oppression and caste tyranny, particularly in rural India, but Indian democracy offers the victims a means of redemption through the
ballot box. Elections have increasingly given real political power to the lowest of India’s low. If today a chaiwallah, proud of his humble origins, occupies the most powerful office in the land, it is because Nehru built the democracy that made this possible half a century after his death. Even as we celebrate our democracy, let us not forget to whom we should be eternally grateful for it.

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress. He recently won his fourth consecutive term from the Thiruvananthapuram constituency in Kerala. A slightly different version of this article was published in Mathrubhumi. Reprinted with Dr. Tharoor’s permission. He is the author of Nehru: The Invention of India, among many other books. Email: letters@khabar.com

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